Dinner parties take on extra dimensions when you think about pairing wines with each course. My usual format picks one wine for the first course, and one for each dish that follows. Sometimes, I pour two different types of wines with one course to have a little extra fun deciding which one each guest liked better with the dish.
On a recent evening, I took it a step in a different direction. I designed a meal around three Chardonnays from the same vintner for four friends of varying wine sophistication. After a blanc de blancs Champagne with starters, I poured all three single-vineyard wines with both a main course and a cheese course. Going back and forth among the wines as they evolved in the glass and responded to the food highlighted the individuality of each wine.
The wines were the 2013s from Sixto, the first vintage of a new Chardonnay project in Washington state from Charles Smith and his winemaking chief Brennon Leighton. Since I wanted this to be fun, not a serious exercise, I quickly described the three vineyards—Moxee from the coolest corner of Yakima Valley, Roza Hills from a warmer part of the same valley, and Frenchman Hills, a north-facing slope in the northern reaches of Columbia Valley—before bringing in the main course.
I had roasted spatchcocked Cornish hens flavored with tandoori marinade. The cheese was Rodolph le Meunier's buttery, light and seductive Cremeux des Cîteaux aux Truffes. I learned to love white wines with rich, soft cheeses like this one in Burgundy, and I still prefer Chardonnay with them.
I expected the spicy marinade, bright with yogurt and lemon, to show off the tart balance of the Frenchman Hills best, and for me it did. But all three wines showed their differences in sharp relief. The mineral notes of the Moxee popped and the broad texture of the Roza let the spices shine. The cheese, on the other hand, found mineral notes in all three wines and its richness added a little extra zing to the Roza.
I did not try to direct the discussion. After the main course I just asked everyone which they liked best. Everyone, even those who were not wine buffs, had clear likes and dislikes, and no single wine dominated.
I like to do this with any set of related wines. Why not roast lamb with three single-vineyard or regionally distinct Zinfandels from the same label? Lemon chicken with Rieslings or grilled salmon with Pinot Noirs would be interesting too.
If you want to try my tandoori-style marinade, here's the recipe: In a large bowl mix 1 tablespoon ground cumin with 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 1 teaspoon curry powder, 2 tablespoons grated ginger, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper with 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice. Stir in 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves and 1 small red onion, sliced. Makes enough to coat 6 Cornish hens to marinate for 4 to 12 hours.